A few weeks ago, I added an old classmate as a friend on Facebook. We had been to primary school together, more than 20 years ago. Within seconds, he sent me this short message: “One word: Queen.” It made me smile, because I honestly couldn’t recall bothering my schoolmates with Queen trivia …
Then I remembered how I mimed to the ‘Live Killers’ version of Sheer Heart Attack, dressed as Freddie Mercury at Live Aid, with a painted moustache and a thin pvc pipe that served as a sawn-off mic, in front of a baffled audience of Spice Girls and Take That fans. Indeed, only one word mattered at that time: Queen.
QueenPod is doing all right and diving deep
Why am I writing this? I’m kind of late to the party, but over the last week I’ve been listening to the QueenPod podcast. Every episode digs deep into a single side of a Queen album. How deep? Well, to give you an idea: side A of Queen’s 1973 debut album is just four tracks long, but it keeps the panel going for 1 hour and 53 minutes straight. That’s how deep.
An interesting detail is that the podcast is made with the consent of Queen’s management, meaning that the makers are allowed to use the music they’re discussing, which is a huge advantage—even if this extended track-by-track approach will mostly appeal to fans who know the entire discography by heart.
“It was never easy being a Queen fan. But Queen music was my launching pad into an eclectic jungle of sound.”
It enables the members of the panel to draw attention to particular details in the music. Roy Thomas Baker playing a stylophone in Seven Seas of Rhye? All right, let’s hear it. And what is Rhye anyway? No stone is left unturned.
Comedian Sooz Kempner delivers nice insights into musical matters such as key changes, Freddie’s vocal range and time signatures. Fellow comedian and superfan John Robins is brilliant throughout. In Simon Lupton, the QueenPod has a guy on board who actually worked closely with the band in recent years, literally a witness from the wings. Host Rohan Acharya ties it all together nicely. Everyone shares their personal stories and invites the listeners do to the same. So here we are (though not born to be kings).
Flash Gordon approaching (and disappearing fast)
A picture exists of my classroom Queen gig. Behind me, a friend in a football shirt sits slumped on a chair, with his hand covering his mouth, trying to hide his laughter. It was never easy being a Queen fan. But as someone shared with QueenPod, Queen music was my launching pad into an eclectic jungle of sound.
The first artists I got into in my early teens after Queen were Van Halen, Bowie and Jeff Beck. Then Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. Then King Crimson, Frank Zappa (who gets regular mentions on the QueenPod show, particularly by John Robins), Rush, XTC, Wire and Porcupine Tree. Then Miles, John Zorn, Swans, Snarky Puppy and Stereolab. If you’re exposed to Queen from a young age, you can easily develop a taste for the eccentric or the outlandish. At least I did.
I got to know Queen through a copy of ‘Greatest Hits’ in my uncle’s collection, which soon became the first CD I bought for myself. When later I cycled to the record shop to buy another Queen album with my pocket money, I decided to choose value for money and picked the CD with the most trackson them.
“I imagined how we would return home without even catching a glimpse of Brian’s tour bus.”
The next day, my father, brought the ‘Flash Gordon’ soundtrack back to where it came from. He returned home with his own childhood favorite, ‘A Night At The Opera’, which really set things alight. From that point on, I had to have, read and hear everything. The solo stuff too.
The night that nearly did me in
Then in 1998, at the age of 12, an event happened I had been ridiculoulsy nervousabout for weeks. Brian May, who had just released ‘Another World’, played the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels. Unfortunately, driving there in pre-GPS days, we got lost in the busy streets of the city. And stuck in traffic.
I panicked and imagined how we would return home without even catching a glimpse of Brian’s tour bus. Luckily, dads always get the job done.
I found a good spot in the back, leaning on the fence around sound engineer Trip Khalaf’s mixing desk. I sang along as if it was the last time I would ever need my voice. And for a brief moment in time, life was perfect.
Miles Davis’ first electric albums, ‘Bitches Brew’ and ‘In A Silent Way’, unleashed an explosion. And not just in the minds of the listeners. In the seventies, great fusion pioneers such as Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie’s Headhunters and Return To Forever all had former mercenaries of Miles on board. But just as happened in the universe, the initial big bang set things in motion, which can still be heard today.
A prime example of this is the new album by TaxiWars drummer Antoine Pierre and his nonet Urbex Electric, ‘Suspended’.
The album may be inspired by the atmosphere of ‘Bitches Brew’ (spot the similarities in the artwork of ‘Suspended’), Miles’ iconic double from 1970, but you can’t confuse the two.
You’ll recognize the sonic palette —the electric piano, the stabs of trumpet and saxophone, the subtly funky rhythms— but Antoine Pierre recycles them as building blocks for an unknown, deserted urban landscape. A landscape that changes its views and moods faster than Miles’ albums did. At the time, Miles preferred to stretch his aural paintings to the length of a full side.
Another thing Urbex has in common with Miles’ electric bands is that the proverbial glue between the musicians is really powerful. Whether played in unison or with loads of tension, you can feel everyone is facing in the same direction. As a bandleader and composer, Pierre never demands all the attention. His drumming is all subtlety. Clear, fizzy and refreshing like sparkling water.
Yes, Drums Take Over is – you’ll never guess – a drum solo. And a very good one at that. It is a cleverly constructed piece of craftsmanship, laid down over an invisible beat. Just three minutes in, Bert Cools and Bram De Looze provide increasingly strong accents on guitar and piano. Which goes to show that Pierre’s drumkit is only part of the puzzle.
It is therefore not entirely fair to single out Drums Take Over. Because everything on ‘Suspended’ is connected. It’s a story with a beginning (the controlled funk of Steam) and an end (the tumultuous exercise in difficult time signatures and loud-silent dynamics of Sound Barrier).
Expect the unexpected
The transition from Abstract: Piece to What U Expect! is particularly stunning. The first song seems to be a negative of the atmosphere of Miles’ In A Silent Way. Ten out of ten for sound design, thanks to Pierre’s skill with soft mallets and Jean-Paul Estiévenart’s desolate trumpet. Piece merges imperceptibly into What U Expect!, which unfolds a fixed rhythm (in 9/8, if my inner metronome is right) and which, above all, expects us to expect the unexpected.
Also, hats off to the musicians who complete this nine-member ensemble. Frédéric Malempré (percussion) is the Airto Moreira of the company and the man of the finishing touch. Félix Zurstrassen (bass) lays down the foundations for the grooves – Pierre himself mainly does so in the somewhat heavier You Nod But You Ain’t. Jozef Dumoulin (Fender Rhodes and electronics) and Bram De Looze (piano) fill in the gaps. And Ben Van Gelder (alto sax) and Reinier Baas (guitar) both excel upfront.
The buzz of live jazz
Suspended’ was recorded live at Flagey Studio 4 in Brussels, January 2020. At that time corona was still just a funny-tasting brand of beer and we didn’t know that live jazz would be hanging in the ropes for months. This record, which by the way was recorded crystal clear, confronts us with what we missed. In the best possible way.
A conversation with Greg Chambers, AKA Superfluous Motor
Since Greg Chambers put ‘Trifecta’ online for free, only a small portion of the prog/fusion populace has picked up on it. Quite perplexing.
‘Trifecta’ is a mammoth, immersive three-piece album–one part Fusion, one part Funk, one part Prog–propelled by challenging rhythms, playful twists and turns, and ever-changing moods that wrap themselves around you like a blanket. One moment, the music hangs in the background, quietly and innocently, the next its melodies grab you and don’t let go.
During the recent lockdown, I’ve come to appreciate both qualities of the music; the reason I got in touch with Greg in the first place. As a bonus, Superfluous Motor was a well-kept secret only a few hundred people knew about.
That’s no surprise. Superfluous Motor is a one-man-band that operates entirely outside of the music business. You won’t find ‘Trifecta’ on CD or vinyl. You can’t catch Superfluous Motor on tour.
“I’m terrible at self-promotion”, Greg told me. But judging from the reactions on his Bandcamp and YouTube channels, Superfluous Motor has the power to affect listeners deeply.
I sat down with Greg–virtually, with a very safe social distance of 6000 km–and asked him about his life as an artist outside of the mainstream.
Let me start by quoting some of the comments listeners left below your YouTube videos: “Soundtrack to my life.” “Perfect music for writing.” “Listening to it while hiking in British Columbia.” It seems like your music takes people places. How would explain that specific ‘transporting’ quality?
Greg Chambers (Superfluous Motor): “First off, it honours me deeply to see comments like that. Knowing that my music has had that effect on even one person, let alone several people, is encouraging and meaningful to me.”
On his approach to albums: “Who in their right mind would release a concept album in 2020?”
“I think the ‘secret sauce’ that might make my music immersive–for lack of a better word–stems from my progressive rock influences. All my favourite 70s era prog rock albums have the same sort of immersive vibe. There’s a lot of layers in the music and you can grab on to different aspects on each listen. I also usually end up releasing full-length concept albums instead of a bunch of singles compiled together.”
Why do concepts fit you better than regular albums?
“I always gravitated to the idea of songs in an album having a flow and all being part of a bigger picture or complimenting each other, especially when the transitions between tracks are seamless. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, but the singles approach is much more common these days. Who in their right mind would release a concept album in 2020?”
‘Trifecta: Fusion’ was inspired by space travel and exploration of the unknown. ‘Idiosyncrasies’ deals with the “quirks, mental illnesses and characteristics that make us who we are”. How do these concepts take shape?
“The concepts usually help as a creative prompt for me. The three genres in ‘Trifecta’ allowed me to focus my efforts and make things a little less ‘all over the place’ than my usual content. Although I didn’t fully succeed as the last two songs on the Fusion section were basically mild Vaporwave tracks. But it did help me maintain focus and finish the stupidly ambitious three albums on one album. I also might have overexerted myself because other than the ‘Double Vision’ album with Caius Hubris, I didn’t release a Superfluous Motor album last year, breaking the “minimum: one album a year” streak I was on.
Tell me about your writing process. How do you start and elaborate your ideas?
“It varies. Sometimes it’s an idea I’ve had in my head for a while. ‘Kaleidoscope’ was a bucket list concept album I’ve always wanted to do. Inspired by Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick as a Brick’, I wanted to write an hour of continuous unbroken music with no or minimal repeating parts. The idea for that was to use music to replicate the effect of looking through a kaleidoscope. Whether I successfully accomplished that is up for debate.”
“Some songs come from trial and error. From beating my head against it until the song finally has a structure and flow. I usually write the drum and bass parts first and add the keys, melody and harmony elements on top. Other songs are smaller parts that I write individually and find creative and interesting ways to get them all to fit together. Some songs are piano pieces adapted for a full band arrangement. And if all else fails, I’ll mimic an existing idea or concept and put my own spin on it. I’m sure my ADHD also has a bit of an effect of the twists and turns some of my songs take too.”
The question that must arise with everyone who hears your music: composing, producting, playing and programming … how do you pull it off all on your own?
“I don’t want to ruin the magic for anyone but most of it is me noodling around with a midi keyboard and a bunch of instrument plugins in FL Studio [a Digital Audio Workstation – UM]. Then I take the songs and mix and master them. I stick to plugins with high-quality samples for drums and bass and the keyboards.”
About artistic freedom: “I don’t have a fanbase large enough to anger a giant mob of fans if I make any drastic changes to my sound”
“The drums are all hand programmed by me, but I also have a very good drummer friend who studied music. He taught me a lot of the theory and drum techniques to replicate and kind of pulled me into the jazz, funk and fusion stuff in general. On occasion, I’ve invited musical friends to meander around with me and often take their suggestions or knowledge of instrument into consideration during the process.”
You’ve called yourself ‘not a people person’. Is working alone a direct consequence of your personality?
“Partly, maybe. Referring to myself as “not a people person” is more of a tongue in cheek approach to my mildly introverted nature. I have a great circle of friends and have played countless gigs in a few different bands over the years.”
“Being a family man with two kids keeps me busy, but I still work on my music whenever I get the chance. I usually get a few hours of writing or recording done almost every day, but I will also say that lately, my song graveyard is growing rapidly. I’d estimate that maybe 20% of what I write ever sees the light of day.”
I suppose recording on your own, in your home, grants you a lot of freedom?
“Indeed. It’s always been a fever dream to maybe organize a larger group of musicians interested in playing the intricate sounds of Superfluous. But for now, the solo, low pressure, non-committal, full creative control, and non-gigging nature of Superfluous Motor means that it will always be a project that I work on.”
“I don’t necessarily stick to specific genres and don’t have a fanbase large enough to anger a giant mob of fans if I make any drastic changes to my sound. The freedom to do whatever I want has been a great way to learn and grow as a musician. But at the end of the day Superfluous Motor is a vessel for me to produce music that I want to make and want to hear.”
You’ve worked together with Canadian rapper Caius Hubris. It seems to be an odd pairing, but together you made the quite spectacular ‘Double Vision’ and record two tracks for Trifecta. What makes it work?
“It’s that Canadian Hospitality. I think we work together well because we don’t have strict creative limits. No idea is too crazy or stupid for us to do (see our silly funk cover of Mad World for example). There are no egos when we collaborate so we just get out of each other’s way and let each other do what we do best.”
“Caius is also extremely good at guiding me during the arranging process. I might have an idea that is okay at best and he will suggest a couple things that turn it into pure magic. It also helps that we’re basically the same person personality-wise, no joke. He’s basically the extroverted version of me … or am I the introverted version of him?”
You’re very good at crafting interesting rhythms. Those drum tracks are so precise and adventurous, even in crazy time signatures. Maybe they are the secret ingredient of the Superfluous Motor sound to me. Why do they work so well?
“Probably because of my overuse of polyrhythms. I use them a lot. For the uninitiated, a polyrhythm is where multiple rhythms are layered on top of each other. The drums parts are also usually the first thing I write and everything else is written around them. I wish I knew why they’re so effective but I do know that if a song kicks off with a killer drum groove, it’ll have me hooked from the start.”
About the unlikely influence of techno: “I wanted to show my friends how easy it was to make, so I made some questionable techno and grew a deeper respect for the process”
Though ‘Trifecta’ is based around funk, prog and fusion, I can’t help but feel the spirit of electronics artists such as Aphex Twin or Squarepusher or Amon Tobin. Or am I insane?
“Electronic music always finds its influence into my music somehow–probably from my early novelty techno music days. It’s not a conscious decision, but you’re definitely not insane.”
Are you saying techno was an early influence on you?
“If I remember correctly, I disliked techno music back in the day. I wanted to show my friends how easy it was to make, so I downloaded FL Studio and made some questionable techno, grew a deeper respect for the process and realized that making music was kind of hard but endlessly entertaining and rewarding.”
“I kept making music until it sounded pretty good (to me) and eventually that silly techno project eventually evolved into Superfluous Motor. However, I didn’t publicly release works. I lacked direction and confidence until coming up with the ‘Shattered Groove’ album. I liked that album enough to release it and kinda figured that it did no good sitting unheard on my hard drive.”
Talking about electronic music, some of your tracks wouldn’t sound out of place in a videogame. You were a gamer, right?
“I’ve always been a huge gaming nerd. I was born in the late 80s and grew up with Nintendo, Super Nintendo and the like. There’s a lot of amazing music in video games and it has always been part of my life. The influence video game music has on me is mostly subconscious (unless I’m making a chiptune track). I don’t directly try or intend to emulate or evoke video game soundtracks in my music, but a lot of my music would fit nicely into a video game.”
“That said, I was working on a cover that featured a mashup of me performing my favourite tracks from ‘Gradius III’[a shooter game, originally released by Konami in 1989 – UM], but it was eventually scrapped and added to the graveyard because I couldn’t figure out how to end it.”
Niagara Falls and Herbie
You’re from Niagara Falls, pretty close to Toronto, and you’re a big prog fan. So I guess we need to talk about Rush.
“I’ve always enjoyed Rush’s music and it’s neat that they’re local. My childhood friend was Neil Peart’s nephew. Sadly, I never got to meet Neil. I’ve also been to Lakeside Park[the title of a 1975 Rush song, Peart lived close to LP during his childhood – UM] several times throughout my life and rode the carousel as a kid. With all that said, Canadian radio has a 35% ‘Canadian content’ quota, so Rush and other popular Canadian acts have been slightly overplayed. Unfortunately, due to oversaturation, I haven’t truly delved deep into Rush’s music. But their overall influence on the music industry has most certainly had an influence on my music too.”
Do the Niagara Falls inspire your music in some way?
“As a born and raised Niagara Falls resident, the allure of the big water drip mostly eludes me. But there is a lot of beauty here, lots of nice nature trails. Going for a hike at the gorge is always an inspiring time.”
“It’s unfortunate that the local music scene here is mostly background music cover bands at bars. But it is a nice city to live in and I love living here. Most of my musical inspiration and influences stem from the city of Hamilton (about a 50 minute drive from the Falls). Hamilton is where I did most of my gigging in the local funk fusion bands and where I truly learned and grew as a musician. It’s a vibe.”
About Herbie Hancock: “Despite being an absolute beast of a musician, he’s so open-minded, kind and accepting of all music in general”
Who do you consider to be your peers?
“Calling them peers would be putting myself a bit too high on the pedestal. So I’ll just say that my influences that I feel stylistically connected with are probably: Medeski, Martin & Wood, Herbie Hancock, Snarky Puppy, Vulfpeck, Focus, Yes, Tower of Power, Jethro Tull, Lettuce, Chick Corea, Jan Hammer, Soft Machine, Billy Cobham, Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston and, in spirit, Ben Folds.
Herbie is one of your biggest idols, right? Why is that? And is there any chance that the synth opening to Anxiety (of ‘Idiosyncracies) was influenced by Chameleon?
“Darn, you caught me! The synth bass intro to Anxiety is dangerous close, treading into stolen/rip-off territory. Herbie Hancock is definitely my number one idol and biggest influence. His entire approach and attitude towards music was life-changing for me. Despite being an absolute beast of a musician, he’s so open-minded, kind and accepting of all music in general.”
“There was a documentary he made titled ‘Possibilities’ that documented him recording his album, also named ‘Possibilities’ [watch it on Herbie’s YouTube Channel – UM]. The album is a big collaboration between him and all kinds of different artists. Seeing Herbie’s attitude towards these other musicians and his attitude towards music in general was the most eye-opening and inspiring thing I had ever seen up until that point in my life.”
“I wish I had the money to own any genuine vintage gear myself. But the Hammond B3 Organ will always be ‘the one’ for me. I started playing piano when I was a kid and didn’t see my first Hammond organ until I was about 18, but it was a love at first sight moment.”
“I luckily have access to a vintage Hammond C3 to play and practice on, which is exactly the same as the B3 the only difference is that the cabinet has an alternate design. My gig keyboards are a Hammond SK2 for organs and a Moog Sub 37 for synth leads, I also sometimes use a Korg SV1 for that vintage Rhodes and Wurli sound. Currently, for recording, I use a Novation Launchkey 61 for organs, bass, synths and clavs and the 88 key Korg SV1 for pianos and electric pianos, with both keyboards functioning as midi controllers.”
You grew up in the 90s and 00s. How did you experience the music and how did it influence your tastes?
“My brother, who is two years older than me, would use cassette tapes to record songs we liked off the boombox radio we had. I grew up listening to The Beatles, AC/DC, ZZ Top, Motley Crüe, Rage Against the Machine, Korn, Limp Bizkit and pretty much everything that was popular over the years on the Canadian TV channel Much Music, basically Canadian MTV. When Napster became a thing then we burnt CDs of music we liked and so on and so forth.”
“My brother started playing guitar at a very young age and became a gigging musician before I ever considered doing anything other than basic noodling on the piano. He then got me listening to stuff like Converge, Daughters and Dillinger Escape Plan. I grew up in a rock and roll and hardcore/metal household and can’t quite remember how I got into prog and fusion stuff.”
On the 70s: “If I was a musician then, I would probably be a guitarist. Lugging around a 500lb Hammond B3 is no fun.”
How do listen to music yourself nowadays?
“My preferred way to listen to music is currently through Spotify while driving in my car. Driving my car on a quiet road is a nice place to be alone and fully absorbed into the music. I usually try to focus on a specific artist and listen to one of their full albums in one sitting. If I find an album I really enjoy that will be on repeat for a while. But I also will check out stuff on YouTube if the performances are filmed, like Snarky Puppy or Vulfpeck.”
“My wife and I also have a music jar with several artists (52+) written on pieces of paper for our two year old son to draw an artist from once a week and then we dive deep into their musical catalog, in hopes to expose him to a variety of musical themes and styles.”
It seems that the internet is crucial for you to get your music out, even to other parts of the world. Still, there’s so much music around and it’s so hard to be heard. So how do you reach the right people?
“Very true, Superfluous Motor would be a bunch of tunes collecting dust on a hard drive (or reel-to-reel tape) if the internet didn’t exist. As for getting heard? I wish I knew, it mostly seems like a mix of luck and sharing to the right place at the right time. Most of my growth was from sharing tunes on reddit. But I haven’t been doing that much lately due to their self-promotion restrictions.”
Suppose you started out in the 70s or 80s. Ever thought about how you would be recording and distributing your music in those decades?
“Superfluous Motor would be a lot less ambitious and probably a cover band if I was doing it in that era. I’d also probably be a guitar player because lugging around a 500lb Hammond B3 plus 300lbs of synths and keyboards is no fun.”
All over the place (like Kandinsky)
You haven’t put out a physical release yet. Why is that? I’d be happy to contribute to a crowdfunding campaign to get that 3LP edition of ‘Trifecta’ out there 🙂
“It’s mostly monetary reasons combined with subpar organizational skills. The downside of being a one-man-show is that creating content and managing social platforms, adding merch and managing all that on my own might be out of my skill set. I hope I can get it all sorted out one day, I’d love to get my albums pressed on vinyl and offer it to those who would want it or even have my logo on a hat, shirt or rad hoodie.”
The Kandinsky covers that accompany your releases would really work great on a 12” record sleeve. Why Kandinsky?
“I always liked abstract art and felt it fit the ‘all over the place’ style of my music. I saw Kandinsky’s work was public domain and started using it. After it became a theme, my wife came home with a huge Kandinsky print larger than our car that now hangs out in the jam space for inspiring creative flow.”
Ever thought about going professional as a recording or touring artist and giving up your day job?
“I think about that every day, I’d love to do this for a living, it’s basically the only thing I’m good at. But, I’m also terrible at self promotion and putting myself out there … let’s just say the seeds been planted but who knows what will come of it.”
Finally, what do you dream of achieving with Superfluous Motor?
“It’s likely to always be my humble little solo project for making and releasing music. As for the future projects I’d love to see more collaborators infusing bits of the work . Wherever it leads, it’ll be sure to be ever in motion.”
The Album Years, a new music podcast by No-Man colleagues Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness, went off to a roaring start, with fans applauding the first two episodes. The new series even hit the top 3 on Apple Podcasts in various countries.
My opinion? The enthusiasm and insights of Wilson and Bowness make you want to pick up a pencil and take extensive notes. I’m afraid this series is going to cost me a small fortune in record stores. If a music podcast can achieve that, it’s a success in my book.
Each episode zooms in on a particular ‘album year’, a year from an era where albums existed as a unified art form, not just a random collection of hits. For Wilson and Bowness, who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, the era started in the mid-60’s–which is true, as long as you don’t take jazz albums into account–and ‘ended’ around the year 2000, which seems to be a more arbitrary choice, especially since the album era never really ended. But you need to draw the line somewhere. I get that.
Beyond Bowie and Pink Floyd
The first two episodes, focussing on 1980 and 1973, where lots of fun already. Without spoiling anything, I can say that while ‘Closer’ by Joy Division, Bowie’s ’Scary Monsters’ and Pink Floyd’s ’The Dark Side of the Moon’ are briefly mentioned they don’t feature in the official selection. As Wilson rightfully comments, these albums have been dissected and reconstructed over and over already: “There’s nothing more to say.”
Instead, Wilson and Bowness pick favorite, significant and strangely-under-the-radar records of a particular year and reflect on it, placing the albums in their historical context, commenting on sonic innovations, adding personal recollections and funny ad-libs (like only friends can), talking about the influence and nachleben of certain albums, often connecting the dots between them. It’s history, debate and annotated playlist rolled into one.
They don’t always agree, which is the kind of dynamic you need to make a podcast like this interesting. Even more so as the podcast isn’t allowed to use any sound clips, so both hosts have to work extra hard to ‘dance about architecture’ and they’re magnificent at it.
Wilson talks quite quickly and in a confident voice (almost as if his knowledge and opinions are fighting to get out), at times cutting off the soft-spoken Tim Bowness mid-sentence.
The latter chooses his words with great care and manages to keep his composure when Wilson questions his choices or statements. It really makes you want to be a fly on the wall during No-Man recording sessions, which have consistently spawned great albums. Maybe that’s their magic.
But both offer remarkable insights and analysis. Even when they talk about records you already know, you’ll be inclined to dig up that LP and listen to it with a new pair of ears.
Just to give you one example: in the 1973 episode, Wilson talks about the horrific drum sound on Todd Rundgren’s ‘A Wizard, A True Star’. So I went back to the Zen Archer, and lo and behold, he’s right. Though one could argue it’s part of the DIY aesthetic of the album.
Insightful and exciting
There’s really no point in judging the selection of albums. Wilson and Bowness have been sharing their playlists online for years. Together they turned me on to dozens of albums. They set out the boundaries of the podcast clearly and within that framework I’m confident they’ll keep balancing every episode between the familiar and the obscure, the accessible and the bizarre. The Album Years has been both insightful and exciting so far.
Enjoy ’The Album Years’ now on all major podcast platforms.
The first few days of quarantine, I struggled to enjoy anything at all. Then I started to feel the gravitational pull of Jaco Pastorius’ 1981 album ‘Word of Mouth’.
I hadn’t given the record much attention until a couple of months ago, when I went through a major Pastorius phase.
Now, with corona taking over our lives, the album reveals even more of its identity. We’re going through a period of extremes.
There’s chaos and peace, solitude and togetherness, beauty and anxiety.
There’s Crisis. And there’s John and Mary.
Complexities of life
Ever since I heard Jaco’s solo piece Portrait of Tracy (‘Jaco Pastorius’, 1976) I’ve been fascinated by his use of light and shade.
He could pair supernatural dexterity with an all-knobs-up-to-eleven racket, just like Jimi Hendrix, all the while writing the most sensitive and beautiful compositions and bass parts.
Jaco may have been a virtuoso and a prankster.
A brilliant and sometimes disastrous performer.
Or even a homeless person with a severe mental disorder, overwhelmed by success and the pressures that came with it.
A comeback kid in the making, tormented by disappointment and instability.
But for me, what he did best was capturing the complexities of life with his highly individual combination of tone, chops and composition.
He did that in a heart-stopping way on Portrait of Tracy, which he wrote for his then-wife.
It’s just 02:22 long, but that solo bass piece, encapsulates everything that makes life hard and worthwhile at the same time.
John and Mary
Hearing ‘Word of Mouth’, reading Bill Milkowski’s excellent biography and thinking back about Portrait of Tracy made me realize how much of Jaco’s life went into his art.
That’s why Bill Milkowski quotes from the entry for the word ‘eulipion’ in ‘Websters New World Dictionary’:
“Music that is inseparable from life.
Sound that embodies the lifeforce and evokes visceral sensations.”
When you hear the kids whispering and giggling over the introductory piano chords of John and Mary—the children Jaco had with Tracy—, followed by a joyous steel pan-driven theme, it almost feels like viewing the world through Jaco’s eyes.
And then when the orchestra and flute take over and Jaco croons along … Wow!
‘The world’s greatest bass player’
Five years after his eponymous debut was released, everything was different.
Judging from the acclaim of the jazz press and his worldwide audience, Jaco Pastorius had actually become what he had always claimed to be: the world’s greatest bass player.
He enjoyed giant success as a member of Weather Report and as the bass player in Joni Mitchell’s band. He also started his own Word of Mouth Big Band.
In February 1980, Jaco signed a deal with Warner Brothers and the record company promptly trusted him with a $125,000 advance—about $390,000 in today’s money.
The world seemed to be Jaco’s oyster. But everything was NOT alright.
Jaco had essentially lost his family, with Tracy retaining custody of the children.
It seems like from that moment on, Jaco was rudderless. As his friend and steel plans player Othello Molineaux said:
“That Tracy thing haunted him for the rest of his life. It was deep in his soul.”
Jaco became increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol. His performances were often hit-or-miss. Sometimes downright disastrous.
Meanwhile, signs of mental illness came to the surface. Dr. Erskine, father of Peter Erskine—who sat on the drum stool with Jaco and Weather Report—thought it was manic depression. Later on, Jaco’s condition was diagnosed as bipolar disorder.
Whatever it was, ‘Word of Mouth’ proves that Jaco had the clarity of mind to compose, arrange and produce the most challenging music of his career.
Crisis and consolation
Crisis opens ‘Word of Mouth’ like ball lightning in a living room.
Bill Milkowski, who knew Jaco personally, wrote:
“This volatile piece captures the anger and internal chaos Jaco must have been experiencing at the time […] Crisis was uncompromisingly honest, expressive music that represented how Jaco felt.”
As a listener, you’re being attacked from all sides for five minutes straight, with the frenetic bass loop and the jumping hi-hat the only things to hold on to.
Jaco seriously pissed off the executives at Warner’s when he insisted Crisis should be the first track on the album. But he didn’t cave for their concerns about commercial suicide.
Right after the chaos of Crisis, the gentle melody of Three Views Of A Secret—a beautiful performance by Toots Thielemans on his trademark harmonica—bring consolation.
The 12 minute long Liberty City, featuring Herbie Hancock on piano, ends the first side of the album in an optimistic, light-hearted and exploratory mood.
Bach’s Fantasy and Blackbird by The Beatles
In a way, the second side of ‘Word of Mouth’ follows a similar path. The leading track is the most ‘difficult’ one: a rework of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy.
The first notes of the high-speed bassline almost seem like an echo of the bass loop in Crisis. And when the orchestra comes in, that’s when the song goes into uncharted territory. It feels like an abstract sound painting of sound. And it’s not easy on the ears.
Bach’s piece seamlessly segues into a breezy rendition of Blackbird, originally released on the Beatles’ ‘White Album’ (1968).
I’m always touched by the father-and-son dynamic Jaco and Toots Thielemans had going on. On Blackbird, they emphasize that bond by sharing the lead, with Jaco running in and out of phase with Toots’ melody.
FUN FACT: Paul McCartney revealed that the guitar part for Blackbird was inspired by Bach’s Bourrée in E Minor, which he and George Harrison used to play as a show-off piece in their teens. Jethro Tull probably made the most famous arrangement of Bourée inn the rock era—it appeared on their 1969 album ‘Stand-up’. No doubt Jaco must have seen the Bach link and placed the two songs side by side deliberately.
At the end of Blackbird, a few distorted bass notes signal the final chapter in a trinity. We’ve had Chromatic Fantasy and Blackbird. Now it’s time for the tormented fusion of Word of Mouth.
Jaco unleashes his demons as well as his inner John McLaughlin.
Finally, just like he did on side one, he wraps everything up and restores the balance with a long piece: the heartfelt John and Mary.
When one day I look back at this strange quarantine period—and let’s hope it’s just a one-off—I will remember Jaco’s ‘Word of Mouth’.
“There was Crisis. And there was John and Mary“.
Further reading Bill Milkowski, ‘Jaco. The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius (Anniversary Edition)’, Backbeat Books 2005.
Okay, so first I was going to assemble an ABC of exotic words or references – exotic for me, as a non-native European – in the Creedence repertoire. Stuff like the ‘Mars tax’ in It Came Out of the Sky (an episode involving Spiro T. Agnew, 39th VP of the United States) and the ‘chasing down the hoodoo’ line in Born on the Bayou. But as soon as I opened the lid on the latter, I realized I was knee-deep in the alligator-filled swamps of Louisiana.
Let’s go south.
“Born on the Bayou
Born on the Baaaaah-you”
The opening track of ‘Bayou Country’ is probably the song that links CCR to the American South the most. With Fogerty’s biting raspy drawl, its edgy, ripply guitar sound and references to New Orleans and the infamous bayou, Born on the Bayou feels like a genuine return to Fogerty’s birthplace. But, as any CCR fan will tell you, John and his elder brother Tom were born and raised in Berkeley, California. Fogerty has said Born on the Bayou is about a ‘mythical childhood’.
“A bayou is a slow-moving creek or a swampy section of a river or a lake. They are usually found in flat areas where water collects in pools. Bayous are often associated with the southeastern part of the United States.”
“I gravitated towards movies that were Southern in nature. The movie The Defiant Ones was very Southern. Another old movie that was a favorite of mine was called Swamp Fever [should be Swamp Water, ed.], believe it or not. I think I hooked into all of that stuff because of the music first.”
Gospel music, that is. The South seems to have made a strong impact on the young Fogerty. “An imaginative South”, Thomas M. Kitts writes, “Formed from reading but mostly music and films like Swamp Water [Jean Renoir, 1941, ed.], one of his favorites, with its […] images of swamps, quicksand, moonshiners, alligators, snakes, human skulls and crucifixes.”
A scene from ‘The Defiant Ones’ (Stanley Kramer, 1958), starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, an escape film
Come to think of it, a great way to ‘feel’ the bayou is by watching Jim Jarmush’ black-and-white cult classic ‘Down by Law’, starring Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni and John Lurie as cellmates and later escapees in the swamps of Louisiana. Great stuff.
“Chasin’ down a hoodoo there”
Right, what is hoodoo? It sounds like voodoo, but it’s not quite the same. Voodoo (or Vodou) is a religion while hoodoo can be labeled folk magic. In the Rick Clark interview, Fogerty explains:
“Hoodoo is a magical, mystical, spiritual, non-defined apparition, like a ghost or a shadow, not necessarily evil, but certainly other-worldly. I was getting some of that imagery from Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.”
Generally, hoodoo is a series of magical beliefs and practices among people of West-African descent in the Southern States.
In 1950, bluesman Muddy Waters released a single called Lousiana Blues on Chess. He wrote: “I’m goin’ down in New Orleans, hmm // Get me a mojo hand.” Very similar, but even more famous was Got My Mojo Workin’: “Going down to Louisiana to get me a mojo hand”. A mojo hand is a lucky charm for hoodoo believers, a little cloth bag filled with roots, herbs and minerals – also know as gris-gis (which happens to be the name of Dr. John’s debut album).
In his excellent article ‘The hoodoo roots of blues music’, Dr. Snake names Hoochie-Choochie Man by Wille Dixon as one of the best-known hoodoo songs. In the first verse, a soothsayer tells a future mother: “You got a boy child comin’ // Gonna be a son-of-a-gun.” The term ‘son-of-a-gun’ made me pause for a moment, because Fogerty added the words ‘of a gun’, which is not on the studio track, in the Fortunate Son on the ‘Live in Europe’ album: “I’m no military son of a gun.”
He maybe also have picked it up from Hank Williams’ Jambalaya (see below) or from Happy Son of a Gun by Buck Owens’ Buckaroos. And look who made an appearance on Looking Out My Back Door: “Dinosaur Victrola list’nin’ to Buck Owens // Doo, doo, doo, lookin’ out my back door.”
There’s a long line of hoodoo-inspired music. From ‘Hoodoo Man Blues’ by the Junior Wells Chicago Blues Band (1965) all the way to the final album by Louisiana-born swamp rocker Tony Joe White, which was simply called ‘Hoodoo’ (2013). Those are just two of the most obvious ones. Also, a lot of the colourful blues names are rooted in hoodoo culture: Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf and of course Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the man who gave the world I Put a Spell on You.
Hoodoo surely did get a hold on John Fogerty. It was even going to be the title of his third solo album, which remains unreleased. At a certain point in 1976, all was set to release the album on Asylum.
Fogerty’s record would have been in the company of Asylum label mates who released classic albums that year: Joni Mitchell’s ‘Hejira’, Jackson Browne’s ‘The Pretender’, Tom Waits’ ‘Small Change’, Warren Zevon’s self-titled debut album and the worldwide smash ‘Hotel California’ by The Eagles. But when Fogerty submitted the record, Asylum rejected it.
“A lot of that album was just gibberish. I even put a Scottish drum corps instrumental track on there because I couldn’t think of anything else to do.”
One of the album tracks was called Hoodoo Man, a song that some fans genuinely seem to like. Though the album is still in the vaults, it’s widely available through bootlegs. But for Fogerty, it seems like bad luck had struck. He went into hibernation and would only return in 1985 with ‘Centerfield’, a full decade after he cemented his solo career with the album that bears his name.
“Wish I was back on the Bayou.
Rollin’ with some Cajun queen”
The word Cajun is another sign that points to Louisiana. Now what is Cajun, other than a way to prepare chicken? Cajuns are people from French ancestry whose forefathers originally settled in Canada in the 1600s. But when the British came to power in Canada in the 18th Century, the so-called Acadians refused to be subjected.
They were considered a threat and forced into exile – an event known as Le Grand Dérangement. Some people ended up in Louisiana, which already had a French/Catholic community. The Cajuns then went on to develop a unique lifestyle in the swampy countryside.
Anyway, when Fogerty sang he was rolling with some Cajun queen. He was talking about a local beauty. But what does it all mean? In ‘John Fogerty: An American Son’, Kitts writes:
“All the song’s images concern a desire to return to not just his [the protagonist’s, ed.] youth but also an unconventional life, one freer, less conformist than the one he seems to be living”
Describing the Americanization of the Cajuns, Shane K. Bernard approaches this from a different cultural perspective: “Some hippies regarded the Cajun way of life, even if stereotyped, as an appealing alternative to mainstream America. They saw it as a return to nature and simpler times.” And that’s where CCR appears:
“One of the most popular rock bands of the period, Creedence Clearwater Revival, reflected the anti-establishment interest in south Louisiana culture. The group actively fostered a “Cajun” image, even though its members hailed from counterculture’s epicenter, San Francisco.”
But it was and remained an image:
“The group’s Cajun image promoted its members as rustic good old boys […] But as its bass player later confessed, “We wouldn’t have known a ‘Cajun vibe’ if it has stopped to talk to us. None of us had ever been to Louisiana or the bayou in our lives.”
A well-known Cajun song is Hank Williams’ Jambalaya (On The Bayou), a hit in 1952. In its first verse, the protagonist sets off in his ‘pirogue’ (a small canoe-like boat for fishing) to meet his own Cajun queen Yvonne. He also briefly opens the door to Cajun cuisine: jambalaya and a crawfish pie on a fillet gumbo. Guess who covered the song on his first solo record.
“Wishin’ I were a fast freight train,
Just a chooglin’ on down to New Orleans”
A-ha, there it is, chooglin’. Contrary to what you might think, it’s not some Southern slang. Fogerty made the word up. What is chooglin’? The answer to that question is on the opposite side of the ‘Bayou Country’ album, in the lyrics of Keep on Chooglin: “You got to ball and have a good time // And that’s what I call chooglin’.”
The word really ties the first and the last song of ‘Bayou Country’, and thus the entire album, together. Born on the Bayou and Keep on Chooglin are mighty bookends.
Bill Laurance’s new album ‘Cables’ is about the dramatic impact of technology on humanity, further confirming his status as a musician with a message. At his recent solo gig at the ‘s Hertogenbosch Verkadefabriek in Holland, Bill offered the audience a glimpse into his concerns and inner life and enriched his acoustic piano playing with beats and electronic textures. To spine-tingling results.
I’m not going to say much about Bill’s impeccable playing and mastery of dynamics, touch and composition. Give ‘Live At Union Chapel’ a spin. It’ll tell you all you need to know. Except for one big difference: on ‘Cables’ and in ‘s Hertogenbosch, he created a musical universe that is entirely his own. Completely on his own. As a bonus, the concert made me appreciate the intricacies of ‘Cables’ on a deeper level.
‘Cables’ is Laurance’s fifth solo record and it’s completely in sync with the times. With themes that range from coping with loss and grief and the healing power of time (Constance), to climate change (Ebb Tide) and the exponential growth of technology (the melancholic, dystopian title track).
It’s funny then that, as Bill ponders our increasingly wireless age, ‘Cables’ is his hardest album to connect to. Of course, in music, the hardest ones are often the most rewarding ones. The same is true of ‘Cables’.
A man and his machines
On ‘Cables’, Bill made the lines between the analogue and the digital blurrier than ever. More impressionistic and searching than before. You won’t find instantly gratifying grooves like Swift (‘Swift’, 2015) or Madeleine (‘Aftersun’, 2016). There’s a wealth of melody and texture, but it doesn’t smack you in the face. It all unfolds slowly. There is no band. No Michael League or Robert ‘Sput’ Searight to help out on bass or drums. Just one man and his battalion of instruments and machines.
“Technology. Is it something to celebrate or something to be aware of?” was one of the issues Laurance shared with the small seated audience at the Jazz Factory, Verkadefabriek in ‘s Hertogenbosch. In his case, professionally at least, it’s both. Technology and artificial intelligence may become dangerous when we lose control over them. But Bill was is in total control – even though he had to shift through dozens of manuals, which kept him away from his piano. “It was worth it”, he added. The audience agreed.
When Bill gradually introduced his electronics to the set (he tweeted a video of his set-up), it became clear it would be a splendid collaboration. The machines, always triggered manually, beautifully enhanced the sounds of Bill’s Yamaha grand piano. He managed to control them all in octopus-like fashion.
But that’s professional. If not handled well, our relationship with technology and big data can move in the wrong direction. A sentiment Laurance seems to express through the song HAL, which refers to HAL 9000, the infamous computer aboard the Discovery One spacecraft in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. While at first HAL is a benign tool with human-like intelligence, it eventually turns against the astronauts and kills all but one.
On ‘Cables’, space exploration is even more explicit on the dramatic closing track Cassini, which was inspired by the Cassini-Huygens mission of Saturn and its ‘grand finale’, where the Cassini probe flew into the atmosphere of Saturn and the signal was lost forever. By then, the probe had made close to half a million pictures.
Back to planet earth. When Bill introduced Ebb Tide, he said it firm and clear: “Climate change is real.” It’s a song inspired by the flow of the tide and the fragility of our planet. Bill explained how a certain delicate part reflects the shimmering sand ribs of the coast that are exposed once the water has fallen. Making that mental image for myself was more powerful than any projection could be.
The beauty of nature has inspired Bill since the early days of his solo career – it’s only five years since debut album ‘Flint’ was released. Chia and Gold Coast, The Isles and Fjords, The Pines, First Light and Golden Hour, … Other titles, like Never-Ending City, U-Bahn (the Berlin underground), Denmark Hill and wintery December in New York reveal an equal fascination for the brick and concrete marks man made on the planet. Bill was happy to admit: “I love the countryside, but I’m always on my phone.” A discrepancy I think a lot of people can relate to today.
Introducing The Keeper, ‘Cables’’ lead-off track, Bill shared the most heart-warming message of the evening: “This is about the significance of persistence. Carrying on is fundamental. Keep searching and you will find what you’re looking for.” He knows.
Musical call to arms
It’s telling that when, earlier today, Snarky Puppy released the first ‘Immigrance’ bonus track, Embossed, it came with a special statement from its creator … Bill Laurance:
“Embossed is a reaction to the social, political and environmental anxiety of the times. It’s a musical call to arms, asking the listener to engage both as an individual and as a member of larger movements for change.”
With Brexit, struggling human rights, climate change, a polarizing ‘leader of the free world’ and misinformation on a massive scale, these are troubled times. Some people bring both consolation and awareness to the world through beauty and art. These people are rare. Bill Laurance is one of them.
In 2017, I talked to Bill Laurance about the meteoric rise of Snarky Puppy and about his plans as a solo artist. Enjoy the interview!
A little while ago, a friend sent me a playlist filled to the brim with goodness. And I couldn’t resist the urge to return the favour, thinking: “Wait a minute, if he likes that, he might like this.” Right, like a streaming service, but without the big data and clever algorithms.
This list covers both long-standing obsessions and recent fixations. I’ll try to explain what’s going on. And as you can tell, I got more elaborate as I worked my way down the list. Enjoy!
Wire – ‘Pink Flag’
To kick off a playlist with an entire album, 21 songs in total. Yeah, what self-proclaimed genius came up with that? Well, I did. But I admit it’s not nearly as unconventional a move as Wire’s first outing. ‘Pink Flag’ remains a puzzling, abrasive and expertly sequenced work of art, far greater than the sum of its parts. So I won’t chop it up.
Essential reading: ‘Wire’s Pink Flag’ by Wilson Neate (33 1/3, 2009)
Breastfist – A Lickin’
This is the crossroads where funk, pop, absurdity and strange pronounciation meet. The hilarious Breastfist is currently signed to Snarky Puppy’s GroundUP label, also home to Sirintip, Becca Stevens, Charlie Hunter, Bokanté and David Crosby.
Further listening: Dread Fruit, a nutty homage to the ‘pleasure textures’ of raisins, prunes and figs (“I’m gonna put you on a cheese”).
Circle – Tulilintu
If Breastfist feels like a Scandinavian band to me, it’s probably because something – I don’t know what, a straight-faced sense of humour maybe – connects them to the Finnish Circle, not be confused with short-lived jazz supergroup of the same name (Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Barry Altschul and Anthony Braxton).
You could never blame Circle for a lack of intensity. I catched the band live. First with fellow-countrymen Magyar Posse and Pan Sonic in Ghent (2007), later with Isis and Keelhaul in Antwerp (2009). I felt like being hit with a hammer twice.
Tulilintu, a portion of Circle’s ode to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBH, see Saxon, Diamond Head, Def Leppard) ‘Tulikoira’, was released in 2005 and features Mika Rättö manically screaming and barking amid a raging guitar blizzard.
Plini – Inhale
Australian guitar wunderkind Plini strikes the balance between technicality, melodicism and dynamics, ranging from ambient prog to jaw-dropping shredding. Better take a deep breath.
Mission of Burma – Academy Fight Song
The first single by these Boston art punks (1980). A combative song about not fitting in, and not wanting to either.
Keith Jarrett – Mortgage on my Soul [Wah-Wah]
Jarrett puts out an assault to brutal he can’t even hear himself hum along. The groove established by a band of serious A-listers (Dewey Redman, Paul Motian and Charlie Haden) is not too dissimilar of a dark drum ‘n’ bass track. Jarrett himself played soprano. But it’s Haden’s heavy wah-wah bass that really stayed with me – if you listen close enough, you can hear two basses – one fairly clean but with a fat tone, the other drenched in wah-wah. Until recently I figured it was Jarrett on a distorted electric piano, but there’s not even a piano in this song.
Snarky Puppy – Lingus
At 04:16, the liquid fusion of Lingus breaks down. The signal for Cory Henry to start building a new groove. He does so swiftly, with full mastery of technology, immense technique and shiploads of imagination. Shaun Martin, Henry’s keyboard compadre, just can’t believe what he’s hearing. And right when Henry reaches the peak of Mount Syntherest, the horns return. With a vengeance.
Ava Luna – Steve Polyester
This is the song that pulled me into the weird and wonderful world of Ava Luna’s ‘Infinite Houses’. With its dead-pan spoken vocals, it feels like a distant cousin to Laurie Anderson’s Sharkey’s Day (‘Mister Heartbreak”, 1984). Steve Polyester lives and breathes New York, just like Laurie and her late husband Lou Reed do.
Sébastien Tellier – Wonderafrica
French eccentric and onetime Eurovision Song Contest contender Sébastien Tellier, sings the praises of African wildlife in this gently rocking Italo synthpop safari.
Donny McCaslin – Praia Grande
Much to Donny McCaslin’s amazement, David Bowie turned up at one of his Greenwich Village gigs in 2014. The album ‘Casting For Gravity’ had left a deep impression on Bowie, who gloriously resurfaced after a long hiatus in 2013 and was plotting his next move, which turned out to be his final. The bond that Bowie and McCaslin forged was immortalized on ‘Blackstar’, Bowie’s swansong. Among the songs that got Bowie excited, was the extatic, vibrant Praia Grande, with a main theme that squirms like a python and a sax solo that roars like a lion.
Knower – Overtime
“I’m the frosted side of a Mini Wheat // You, you know that I’m so sweet.” Knower – Louis Cole and Geneviève Artadi – know how to inject their infectious brand of electrofunk with humour. While not nearly as wacky as The Government Knows or Die Right Now, love song Overtime features fabulous songwriting, a spacy timeless mood, great musicianship and seductive vocals.
Tatran – Strawberry Fields Forever
Hey hey, why does it say Tatran instead of the Beatles!? Well, dear reader, I’m the first person to admit that some classics are better left untouched. But this version by Israeli intrumentalists Tatran is achingly beautiful, adding something new to a much-loved melody. No mean feat.
The Troggs – Strange Movies
In 1966, The Troggs stormed the charts with ‘Wild Thing’. And mothers and fathers locked up their daughters. Things didn’t improve by 1973, when The Troggs and Reg Presley sang about their first encounter with an up-and-coming new film genre: “Sid and Mandy they were, uh, getting randy, uh uh // When Sue and Bill joined in // Jake was waiting and uh anticipating uh, uh // Started smoothing their skin // Then just to ease the strain // They all formed a daisy chain // They went uh uh uh uh uh uh uh, well!”
Lex Sadler feat. Ari Hoenig – Shibuya Crossing
Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing is one of the busiest intersections of the world. If you haven’t visited it in person, you might know it from Sofia Coppola’s ‘Lost In Translation’ (2003). New York-based producer and musician Lex Sadler used the crossing as a source of inspiration to make the musical equivalent of a timelapse video. An ever-shifting trip that starts in the early morning and moves from rush hour chaos to neon-lit nightlife.
Max Tundra – Number Your Days
Just like Knower’s Die Right Now (‘Life’, 2016) and Motorpsycho’s When You’re Dead (‘Phanerothyme’, 2001) Max Tundra’s Number Your Days ponders death in a light and funny way: “Nothing happens when you die // You don’t leave your body or fly off into the sky.” Coupled with Tundra’s outlandish, melodic and all-embracing interaction with a multitude of influences (from crystalline pop to chiptune aesthetics), it makes for a gripping song that sticks out on an already excellent album (‘Parallax Error Beheads You’, 2008).
John Zorn – Erotico (The Burglars)
John Zorn lifted the enigmatic Erotico from Ennio Morricone’s score for ‘The Burglars’ (‘Le Casse’, Henri Verneuil, 1971) and turned it into a more organic (no pun intended) and frankly superior song, thanks in no small part to Big John Patton’s roaring Hammond. The same BJP recorded the iconic album ‘Let ‘Em Roll’ for Blue Note Records in 1965. Other Zorn acolytes like Bill Frisell (guitar) and Bobby Previte (drums) fill out the sonic mosaique, while Shelley Hirsch and Laura Biscotto provide appropriately erotic voices.
Maudlin of the Well – Gleam In Ranks
Before Toby Driver secured himself and his band Kayo Dot a deal with John Zorn’s Tzadik label, he made these peculiar dark metal rollercoasters with Maudlin of the Well (as well as gorgeous ballads, like Sleep Is A Curse). Gleam In Ranks travels from the quietly ominous to the downright evil, driven forward by a frivolous piano motif, guitars like chainsaws, twin kick drums and Driver’s voice, which goes from a whisper to a scream in the blink of an eye.
Cardiacs – Is This The Life?
Cardiacs are criminally good, but also criminally underrated and overlooked. That’s why you can’t just be a casual fan, you become a zealot. On Is This The Life?, Cardiacs approach things a bit more straightforward than they normally would. The feel of the song is not unlike that of Killing Joke’s Love Like Blood. You won’t find any weird twists and turns nor batshit crazy time signatures (compare Fiery Gun Hand) here, but you do get Tim Smith’s acerbic vocals, an epic guitar assault and a fierce band performance.
Massacre – Legs
New York again. Massacre was formed by experimental musician Fred Frith after the demise of avant-prog outfit Henry Cow in 1979. Frith moved to New York and, judging from the quirky, abrasive sound and conciseness of Legs, seemed to draw inspiration from the local No Wave-movement. Legs is wild, rhythmically complex (listen for Bill Laswells wobbly counterpoint) and as a whole irresistible. It’s a short distance from Massacre to math rock.
Cluster – Hollywood
An early electronic song that still plays tricks on me, after discovering it throug Hans-Joachim Roedelius’ ‘Works’ (1968-2005). In ‘Rock. The Rough Guide’, the author wrote: “What is so exciting, if you discover or rediscover these albums [‘Cluster’, ‘Cluster II’ and ‘Zuckerzeit’] now, is just how contemporary they sound at a time when the power of the drone is being re-invoked by a the new ambient-electro bands.” And if it’s true that’ Zuckerzeit’ sparked Eno’s interest in Cluster, then this mind-boggling track was probably his first taste of Roedelius and Moebius.
What does it take to make of good cocktail? The trick is to use the right measuring cups and shakers, a balanced mix of juices, liquor and spices and a splash of creativity. ‘What Heat’ by the multinational Bokanté is such a cocktail. A wonderous fusion of cultures and musical idioms. A blend that reveals new aromas with every sip. A keeper on the menu. Indeed, an important album.
The man behind the bar? Tireless Michael League. As if conquering the world with Snarky Puppy isn’t a fulltime job already, League is head of the GroundUP label, a champion for musician’s rights and a distinctive producer, notably responsible for the sound design of David Crosby’s sublime ‘Lighthouse’ (2016) and more recently, ‘Here If You Listen’. He really must need very little sleep as he also immerses himself in other passions, like mastering Turkish percussion and the art of the oud, a (North) African and Middle Eastern lute-like string instrument.
In Bokanté, League surrounds himself with true masters of their domain. Musicians out of five countries and nearly as many continents. On percussion: Jamey Haddad, André Ferrari, Keith Ogawa and djembe supremo Weedie Braimah (who also played on Bill Laurance‘s ‘Aftersun’). On guitar, there’s Chris McQueen and Bob Lanzetti, two of Snarky Puppy’s usual suspects. And Roosevelt Collier plays pedal steel (prominently on closing track La Maison En Feu).
And then there’s this fenomenal, multifaceted voice, which belongs to Guadeloupean singer Malika Tirolien. Together these nine unique identities make all boundaries evaporate. Just like that.
On its second album ‘What Heat’, Bokanté time travels back to the roots of the blues in Africa and the Arabic world, bringing back its finest elements and merging them with delta blues, Caribean music and a range of other influences, until someting new and exciting appears. The acoustic guitar arpeggio’s of McQueen and Lanzetti add western, almost singer-songwriter-like flair. And importantly, the Dutch Metropole Orkest gives wings to Bokanté’s sound.
Michael League and conductor Jules Buckley masterly avoid the pitfalls of the orchestra treatment – as they previously managed to do on ‘Sylva’ (2015), which landed Snarky Puppy a Grammy Award. ‘What Heat’ is all about unpredictable and exploring writing and arranging. Groove and melody come first.
The orchestral backdrop is always stylish, never ever blatant, always right on point. You can sense that these arrangements were intensely polished. But you can’t discern their screws and the seams. The orchestra rocks, soothes and rages in the background. And then sometimes it bursts out with an instrumental flash, to baffling effect.
World on fire
The song closest to my heart? Definitely Famn, which translates as The Woman. It touches a nerve unlike anything I discovered in the past few months. Its off-centre rhythm, deep bass, hissing and ominous strings, the tapestry of voices, the ‘speed bump’ at 02:32, the oud coda, … Chillingly beautiful.
Tirolien’s lyrics (often in Guadeloupean Creole) seem to focus on the state our world is in. Take Bod Lanme Pa Lwen, which means The Beach Is Not Far. The viewpoint of a sunbather or the yearning cry of a refugee on a rickety boat? The final words of the album leave no doubt about Bokanté’s social engagement: “Il est temps d’utiliser notre pouvoir / Maintenant” [“It’s time to use our power. Right now.”]
I’m far from done with ‘What Heat’, that’s for sure. It’s a deep, fun, layered and, dare I say, important album. Because it reflects on the world on fire. Because it’s a mirror of our complex society. Because it shows how boundaries and genres are merely artifects, which we can transcended. Again, ‘What Heat’ is a beautiful, important record.
It all began with coincidence. When my grandmother and I decided to visit Hamburg, I instinctively went looking for the city’s best venues and their programs. Before long, I was holding tickets for The Breeders at the Fabrik, a former machine parts factory right in the middle of the lively, down to earth Altona neighbourhood.
It had been scheiße heiß that day in Hamburg’s Altstadt and by the waterside in the harbour. The slight breeze passing over the Elbe and the sight of the glacial Elbphilarmonie provided some refreshment, along with a pint of Erdinger Weissenbier. In the early evening, the piercing sun left behind a sultry, harmless heat.
You could easily mistake the sidewalk in front of the Fabrik for an outdoor screening of a World Cup match. Hands holding Carlsberg bottles, people wearing T-shirts of their favourite team (either The Breeders or local club FC Sankt Pauli), anticipation in the air.
Sturm und Drang
Apart from the old crane on the roof, the front of the Fabrik didn’t seem to hold anything special. But once inside, I got struck by its unique architecture: a high church-like room with a glass ceiling, hefty wooden beams, a 360° gallery on the first floor and an impressive wall of fame on the second floor. U2, Killing Joke, John Abercrombie’s Gateway Trio, Alphonse Mouzon, Holger Czukay, Klaus Schulze, Carla Bley, Billy Cobham, John Mayall, Miles Davis, … These greats and many others made the Fabrik the modest music temple it is today.
The Amsterdam youngsters of Pip Blom moved the audience’s minds away from the past. The band played its first gig on German soil. And as soon as 20 year-old singer Pip (vocals/guitar) and her band started making noise and launched their energetic form of slacker pop into the former factory, people started pouring in.
Wherever they go, Kim and Kelly Deal seem to prefer (part-)female opening acts. With ‘Last Splash’ and lead single Cannonball they hit jackpot in a male-dominated music industry and did things by their own standards. No compromises. Now they support other bands to do the same. For Pip Blom, it worked. The crowd appreciated the melodic Sturm und Drang of the Dutch quartet. Some people sang along, some mirrored the shaking bodies onstage.
Tension and release
Obviously, The Breeders gave a more mature impression, marked by a 30 year history of monster success and disintegration, addiction and rehab, line-up changes and reconciliation.
In 2013, the rejuvenated classic line-up of Kim and Kelley Deal, Jim MacPherson and Josephine Wiggs embarked on a tour to celebrate 20 years of ‘Last Splash’. A reunion that eventually led to the brilliant ‘All Nerve’, released in March.
Not that old tensions are gone altogether. “We don’t always get along”, Kim told J Double. “I think it’s sort of key.” Of her sister Kelley, she said: “Sometimes, I just want to take a knife and gouge her eyeballs. But then at other times, she says something and I think, Wow, that was really cool.” Meanwhile, Kelley told The New York Times about the experience of recording ‘All Nerve’: “We still butted heads.” And then they went out to get some ice cream and discuss the latest episode of their favourite true crime series. (Uncut Magazine #251)
So when Kim introduced Kelley in the Fabrik as the singer of the next song (I Just Want to get Along) with the words “Mother says Kelly has to sing a song”, it was both funny and poignant.
Smiling and shaking
If past tensions had left its mark on the band, you couldn’t tell from the energy on stage. Even in the back, it was hard not to be enchanted by Kim’s beaming smile. And Jim MacPherson’s drum set was a living thing, shaking with excitement right from the beginning, which had new song Wait in the Car sandwiched between ‘Last Splash’favourites New Year and No Aloha. The band mainly drew songs from that album, 25 years old this year, and the new one, ‘All Nerve’.
Not suprisingly, just two tracks from the interim period made it to the setlist. MacPherson, who had left the band after the release of ‘Last Splash’, recalled in Uncut Magazine: “Hearing the new Breeders records coming out was like a knife in my gutt.”
Kim didn’t try to beat around the bush. Before she started one of those songs, Huffer, she said: “You can all song along to this, for it is the album before rehab. So the lyrics are really simple.” A goofy stab at herself.
On the verge of falling apart
Watching The Breeders launch into Cannonball and the wild audience reaction from the gallery was a sight to behold. Suddenly the crowd began jumping around as if trying to walk barefoot over red hot coals.
Tracks like Spacewoman, the gentle country of Drivin’ on 9 and Off You balanced the pace, the latter beautifully played by just the Deal sisters (“I am the autumn in the scarlet, I am the make-up on your eyes”) and immediately followed by the Pretty Vacant-like mood of I Just Wanna Get Along. Allegedly, Kim wrote that song about her failing working relationship with former Pixies-bandmate Frank Black, but after all that happened in her own band, the title took on a wholly new meaning.
Josephine Wiggs, who always comes across as the most sensible of the quartet in interviews, got it right when she told of the band’s sound to The New York Times: “Often I feel like it’s right on the verge of falling apart, and then it doesn’t. And there’s something super-exciting about that.”
In hindsight, I think that’s exactly what made this gig so special. That and the amazing surroundings of the Fabrik. All authentic. The real deal.